Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday the United States is looking at delivering radios or other non-lethal aid to Syria's rebel forces but warned of the risks of military action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime without international consensus or a unified opposition.
While outraged at the killing of civilians in Syria, the U.S. government is opposed to taking "unilateral" military action and favors pursuing diplomacy to force Assad to step down, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Asked by Senator Richard Blumenthal if the United States was ready to deliver communications equipment to Syrian rebels, Panetta said: "I'd prefer to discuss that in a closed session but I can tell you that we're considering an array of non-lethal assistance."
His answer marked the first time President Barack Obama's administration had suggested it was ready to provide direct assistance to Syria's rebels, who are badly outgunned by the regime's tanks and artillery.
The Pentagon chief condemned the Syrian regime's violent crackdown but expressed caution about military intervention, citing a lack of international consensus, a deeply divided resistance and the risk of fueling a civil war.
"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support efforts to protect the Syrian people, end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options if necessary," Panetta said.
"Although we will not rule out any future course of action, currently the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than a military intervention," he said.
Some Republican lawmakers, including Senator John McCain, have called for U.S. air strikes to support the Syrian rebels and warned that time is of the essence to protect threatened civilians.
"Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since the Balkans," McCain said at the hearing.
The "only realistic way" to stop Assad's artillery and tanks was through "foreign air power," he said.
Panetta, however, echoed Obama's view that the situation was different than Libya, where a NATO-led coalition carried out a bombing campaign last year that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
In the case of Libya, there was strong support for intervention in the U.N. Security Council and within the Arab League, he said. Russia and China have opposed punitive measures against Assad's regime and the Arab League has stopped short of endorsing an air war over Syria.
Panetta also said the armed resistance in Syria was so fragmented that it was difficult to know who outside governments should recognize or contact, with roughly 100 groups identified as part of the opposition.
"It is not clear what constitutes the Syrian armed opposition -- there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed, or contacted," he said.
Syria's Russian-made air defenses in the country's west were five times more powerful than Libya's anti-aircraft weaponry, the U.S. military's top officer, General Martin Dempsey, told the same hearing.
The American military's role so far had been limited to sharing intelligence with regional partners, he said. "But should we be called on to help secure U.S. interests in other ways, we will be ready."
"We maintain an agile regional and global posture. We have solid military relationships with every country on Syria's borders," said Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The military had prepared contingency plans for possible intervention at the request of the White House but the president had not yet been briefed and a more detailed operational plan had yet to be drawn up, he said.
Although the Pentagon and White House are clearly reluctant to launch an air war in Syria, officials have left the door open to intervention in public statements partly as a form of pressure on Assad, analysts say.
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